JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH ADA BJARNADOTTIR FROM REYKJAVIK, ICELAND !
Ada was born and (mostly) raised in Iceland, but moved abroad to study and spent over a decade living abroad. Now back in her native Reykjavík, she works in tourism and marketing, and spends her free time traveling around Iceland with her daughter. She is all about responsible tourism, mindful living, nature and outdoors adventures, creativity, finding the balance between healthy eating and delicious treats, and spending time with lovely people. You can find Ada on her blog Embraced by the North and Instagram.
Iceland, the land of fire and ice, is known for its magnificent glaciers, hot springs, waterfalls, rift valleys, geothermic spas and Icelandic horses. Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, is situated in Iceland and is equivalent to three times the size of Luxembourg or Rhode Island. It is also home to the largest nesting grounds of the Atlantic puffin in the entire world.
Two degrees south of the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 64 degrees and 8 minutes north, lies Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. It is the northernmost capital city of a sovereign state in the world with only Nuuk being further north than Reykjavík. Reykjavík, literally translates as “Cove of Smokes” or “smoky bay” for the steam rising from its various hot springs.
Please tell us something about life in Reykjavik. As a local, when do you think is the best time to visit Iceland ?
For a capital city, Reykjavík is a very small city, with only 130.000 inhabitants (235.000 people if you count the greater capital area). However, considering its size, Reykjavík has a lot to offer. There is a vibrant cultural life and a colourful nightlife.
In summer, Reykjavík is very lively and the locals use every opportunity to be outside. In winter, when it’s cold and dark most of the time, life can be more difficult in Reykjavík. We make up for it by having really cosy homes. Our houses are geothermally heated, so even during cold winters they are nice and warm. And Reykjavík has a lot of nice cafés and bars, ideal for spending cold snowy evenings.
Something that might surprise a visitor in Reykjavík is the amount of ice cream shops. Icelanders love ice cream, but because it’s so cold here, we usually just buy the ice cream, take it to our car and drive around while eating it. We even have a word for this: ístúr (“ice cream tour”).
I think any time of the year is nice to visit Iceland. It just depends on what you’re looking for. In summer it’s warm and often sunny, everything is green, the days are long and you can see the midnight sun. In winter it’s cold and windy, sometimes snowy, the days are very short, but you might see the Northern Lights.
Iceland has a rich history of folklore on elves and trolls. I am curious, do Icelanders really believe in the existence of supernatural forces?
Some do and some don’t, but I think most Icelanders are open to the possibility. As in, we don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. There are many places in Iceland that are known to be supernatural, and there are lots of rocks and hills in Reykjavík and all over the country that are known to be elf homes. On several occasions when roads were being paved, they needed to be paved around a rock that’s known to be home of elves or hidden people, so not to disturb them. Perhaps the workers have tried moving the rock, but something bad always happened. In that case, a medium or a seer might be called to communicate with the supernatural beings and try to find a compromise.
A few years ago there was a case of a 70 ton lava rock being in the way of a new road. The road was being paved through a large lava field between Reykjavík and neighbouring municipality Álftanes. The problem was that in this lava field was a large elf community and the huge rock was an elf church called Ófeigskirkja. The elves communicated with The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration through a seer, and they made the compromise that the elf church would be safely moved to a new place in the lava.
When it comes to trolls, I don’t think they are considered to be a thing of the present. But we all know lots of rocks all around the country that are supposed to have been trolls who stayed out too long, so when the sun came up they turned to stone. The most famous example of this are Reynisdrangar, rock formations near the shore of Reynisfjara (The Black Sand Beach).
Would you recommend renting a car to explore Iceland or public transport does the job? Can you recommend some companies for such hire?
I think that for first time visitors it’s a good idea to go on guided tours in Iceland. They are a great way to see the most famous places in Iceland without having to stress about driving, and the guides are extremely knowledgeable!
Renting a car is another possibility, which can be useful in summer when the days are long and it’s possible to road trip from morning and into the night. In winter, I’d only recommend renting a car if you have experience driving in extreme winter conditions.
According to you which are the top three places to visit in Reykjavík ? What is so special about them?
It’s really hard to pick only three places… but Reykjavík is a small city so it’s easy to see a lot in a short amount of time. I think if I have to boil it down to three places, I’d pick these three:
Laugardalur Valley: A large recreational area east of the city centre. The name Laugardalur can be translated to “hot spring valley”. Until the 1930s the women of Reykjavík used the hot springs there to wash laundry. At the time, Laugardalur was far outside the city of Reykjavík! Nowadays the area is home to Reykjavík biggest geothermal pool, the national sports stadium, a beautiful park with a café, a botanical garden, ice skating stadium, family park and a petting zoo.
Skólavörðuholt: Skólavörðuholt is in the centre of Reykjavík and the location of the city’s most famous landmark: Hallgrímskirkja Church. From the church tower of Hallgrímskirkja there is an amazing view of the city, over the bay and to the mountains. Across the street from the church is The Museum of Einar Jónsson. Jónsson was an Icelandic sculptor who sought inspiration from spirituality, philosophy and Norse mythology. The Museum garden, with Jónsson’s beautiful sculptures and a view of Hallgrímskirkja is in my opinion one of Reykjavík’s hidden gems. From Skólavörðuholt you can walk down the street Skólavörðustígur to Iceland’s oldest café, Mokka Kaffi. They make the best hot chocolate in town!
The Old Harbour & Grandi: The Old Harbour is considered to be the heart of Reykjavík. The city grew around the Harbour and the area became one of the centres of the Icelandic trawling industry in the early 20th century. Now the old net sheds by the harbour have been transformed into cafés, restaurant and small shops, and it’s possible to go on whale watching trips from there. Walking a bit further west you will reach Grandi. Also connected to Iceland maritime history, the fishing district Grandi has been transformed into a trendy area and the huts that used to be fishermen’s quarters now house all kinds of delicatessen shops and designer workshops. There is also a Food Court in Grandi called Grandi Mathöll, located in an old fish processing plant.
What are the most popular day trips for nature, culture and history from Reykjavík ?
It’s possible to make a lot of interesting day trips from Reykjavík. Probably the most popular one is the Golden Circle. It’s main attractions are Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir Geothermal Area and Þingvellir National Park.
Located in the Hvítá river canyon, Gullfoss Waterfall is one of the most popular waterfall of Iceland. Gull or Golden and Foss or Falls is called so because the water falling down the three steps and then tumbling in two steps down into the 32 m deep crevice truly looks golden. On the top of the waterfall there is a memorial site of Sigríður Tómasdóttir who protested against the building of hydroelectric plant at the falls.
Geysir Geothermal Area is a part of the famous Golden Circle along with Thingvellir National Park and Gullfoss Waterfall. The geothermal field with boiling mud pits and exploding geysers are a popular attraction. Spread across an area of three square kilometre, Geysir is mostly dormant, however, a small geyser called Strokkur erupts every few minutes. In peak season, avoid crowd by visiting before 10 o’clock or after 4 pm.
Þingvellir National Park is located in an active volcanic area which offered a magnificent natural backdrop for the open air parliamentary assembly from around 930 AD to 1798. The National Park is enclosed by a mountains on three sides, featuring grass-covered lava fields, and Lake Þingvallavatn which lies at its southern end.
Other interesting places on that route are Friðheimar (tomato-growing greenhouses with a fantastic restaurant), The Secret Lagoon (an alternative to the Blue Lagoon) and Laugarvatnshellar (caves that Icelanders used to live in). The South Coast is also a nice day trip, where you can for example visit the waterfalls Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, The Heritage Museum at Skógar and The Black Sand Beach.
If you’d want to go all the way to the Glacier Lagoons, I’d make it a 2-day trip. A third option for a daytrip from Reykjavík is the Reykjanes Peninsula. Reykjanes is located on a drift zone, between two continents, and it’s possible to walk between the North American and European plates there. It’s also where The Blue Lagoon is, as well as various hot springs and lava fields.
Reykjavik is built on several geothermal springs. Which are the best hot pools to take a dip in?
Since Iceland is a volcanic island, we have an abundance of hot water straight from the ground. Therefore, the swimming pool culture in Iceland is huge. Every neighbourhood in Reykjavík has a geothermal swimming pool. I usually go to my local pool, Laugardalslaug in Laugardalur Valley. It’s the largest swimming pool complex in Iceland, with three pools and eight hot tubs. Other nice pools in Reykjavík are Vesturbæjarlaug in Vesturbær and Árbæjarlaug in Árbær. In general, the local gossip happens in the hot tubs at the swimming pools.
What is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Reykjavik? Would you suggest any events in your city to drama, music or art lovers?
I would say the most celebrated holidays in Iceland are Christmas and New Year’s. It’s not that Icelanders are particularly religious. But Christmas is an important turning point, when we’ve reached the darkest day of the year and from then on the days will start getting longer and brighter again. Christmas itself is usually a family celebration, but New Year’s Eve is a huge party night, and everyone shoots fireworks like there’s no tomorrow.
There are lots of events and festivals in Reykjavík and all of Iceland all year round. The biggest party weekend is the first weekend of August (Bank Holiday Weekend): Verslunarmannahelgin. During this weekend there are festivals all over the country and lots of Reykjavík locals travel, but there’s also a festival in Reykjavík for those who want to stay in the city. Iceland’s National Day is on June 17th. That’s when we celebrate independence from Denmark (in 1944). For music lovers, I’d recommend Iceland Airwaves, a music festival in Reykjavík in early November every year.
What is the best time of the year to spot Aurora Borealis in Reykjavik considering the unpredictable weather there and from where?
It’s only possible to see the Northern Lights in Iceland in the winter time. That’s because during winter there’s darkness. The northern lights are not visible if it’s bright. So from September to April, there is a chance of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland. Chances of seeing the Northern Lights are completely dependent on the weather and the strength of their activity (Kp Index). If it’s cloudy, the Northern Lights won’t be visible. The Kp Index tells how strong they will be. However, I’ve seen amazing Northern Lights with a low Kp Index, and weak ones when the forecast is high, so it’s not always completely accurate.
Another thing that’s important when viewing the Northern Lights is getting as far from light pollution as possible. Therefore, Reykjavík is not an ideal place to see the Northern Lights. It’s possible, if they’re very strong, but you will always have a better experience if you find a place that’s completely dark and that means going outside the city.
Would you recommend guided tours for chasing Northern Lights?
I think guided tours are a great option for chasing the Northern Lights. There are plenty of bus companies in Reykjavík who offer Northern Lights tours, and they are run by professional locals who know exactly how to find them and have the best experience. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon, so they can’t be guaranteed. But when you go on tours, I think you’ll always be offered to go again if you don’t see them, so I wouldn’t leave it to the last day of the trip.
Another option is going with a small group. I went on a Northern Lights tour with an Icelandic photographer called Páll Jökull a few years ago. He has tours for 2-4 people, and with such a small group you get a really personal experience, you can easily go to the best locations, and you have a photographer with you to help you get the best photos possible.
Which are the must try local dishes of Reykjavik?
Since we are surrounded by sea in Iceland, we eat a lot of fish! Plokkfiskur is a very traditional everyday dish in Iceland, it’s basically a very simple fish stew with the main ingredients being white fish (for example haddock or cod) and potatoes. We also like to snack on dried fish, which we call Harðfiskur.
Lamb is also very important in the traditional cuisine of Iceland. Kjötsúpa (meat soup) is a very popular everyday meal. A more festive traditional dish would be Hangikjöt, which we usually eat at Christmas. Hangikjöt is smoked lamb, usually served with potatoes in white sauce and a traditional crispy flatbread called laufabrauð.
I think the most traditional sweet treats are kleina and Icelandic pancakes. Kleina is usually described as a twisted doughnut. It can be bought in every bakery and grocery store in Iceland, and tastes best with a cup of coffee. Icelandic pancakes are very thin, somewhat similar to crepes, made on a special pancake pan. When we eat them, we usually just put sugar on them, roll them up and then fold them in half.
Any recommendations on popular local places to try them?
I would recommend Café Loki or Icelandic Street Food if you want to try traditional Icelandic food. They both specialize in local cuisine and I think they have all the dishes I’ve mentioned here. Café Loki is on Skólavörðuholt, opposite Hallgrímskirkja Church, and Icelandic Street Food is on Lækjargata, close to the city pond Tjörnin.
Are there any popular weekend, night or flea markets in Reykjavik which tourists must visit?
The Reykjavík Flea Market is called Kolaportið. Literally translated the name means The Coal Yard, referring to the Flea Market’s first location back in 1989, which was in a car park that used to be a coal processing plant. At Kolaportið you can find all kinds of things, both used and new, as well as traditional food and candy. From a local perspective, it’s a particularly good place to buy real Icelandic salty liquorice and dried fish.
Anything that one must bring back home from Iceland?
I think a perfect souvenir from Iceland would be a Traditional Icelandic Wool Sweater (Lopapeysa). Just make sure it’s handmade in Iceland. The Handknitting Association of Iceland, located in downtown Reykjavík, sells beautiful wool sweaters made by locals. And you might also find some at Kolaportið Flea Market! I’d also get some Icelandic candy, in particular salty liquorice. If you’d rather go for something chocolaty and crunchy, I’d recommend Nóa Kropp, that’s a classic!
What to pack for a trip to Iceland to adjust with the weather conditions there?
In Iceland, summers are generally mild, with an average temperature of 14°C in July, the warmest month. It can get warmer than that, and nice and sunny, but it can also get colder. Winters are cold, and even though the temperature may not go far below freezing, it’s usually very windy, which makes it feel a lot colder.
It’s a good idea to bring lots of warm clothes and rain- and wind proof clothes. The weather in Iceland changes fast, so it’s good to be able to add a layer or remove a layer as needed.
Would you recommend any local apps for food, transport, northern lights or hidden gems that local use?
There aren’t many local apps that I know of. I think the app for the buses in Reykjavík is quite useful, it’s called Strætó. I also have an app on my phone called Wapp, it’s a database of hiking trails in Reykjavík and all around Iceland.
There are two websites that locals always keep a close eye on, and are very important for anyone travelling in Iceland. One of them is www.vedur.is (The Icelandic Met Office). The weather in Iceland can be very unpredictable and before heading out it’s advisable to know if a weather warning has been issued. The other one is www.road.is (The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration). If travelling the roads of Iceland, it’s crucial to know what condition they are in (for example, if there is snow or icing), and whether the roads are open in general.
Any do’s and dont’s in Iceland that one must respect and follow?
I’d encourage everyone traveling to Iceland to be a responsible traveller. Nature is very important to Icelanders, and the nature in Iceland is very fragile. It’s important to stick to designated pathways, don’t climb over barriers, and respect if areas are closed off, to minimize damage to vegetation.
There is very little crime in Iceland, so it’s a very safe place in that regard.
Do explore Iceland and go on adventures, but don’t forget to plan ahead and be safe. The weather in Iceland can be very unpredictable, specially in winter, and this can create dangerous circumstances. So just make sure to never ignore weather warnings.
THINGS TO KNOW
|Geographical area||103,000 km2 (40,000 sq mi)|
|Population||341,243 (2020 )|
To Reach Reykjavik
By Air : A number of airlines operate regular flights to Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport (KEF) which depart from nearly 90 cities around the world. It is located 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Reykjavík’s city center. Reykjavik can be reached in less than six hours from New York City, or in 2 hours from London.
There is a domestic airport in central Reykjavík called Reykjavík Domestic Airport and a few more in other towns like Ísafjörður (North-West), Egilsstaðir (East), and Akureyri (North) which receive some International flights too, mainly from countries up in the north.
By Sea : Iceland by sea is also possible as numerous cruise ships sail to Iceland from Europe or North America. There is also a scheduled ferry service on the Smyril Line which departs from Denmark and crosses the North Atlantic with a stop in the Faroe Islands. It does not dock in Reykjavík but at a 10-hour drive from the capital in East Iceland.
By Rail : There is no railway system of any sort in Iceland.
To Stay in Reykjavik : There are plenty of hotel choices suiting every budget and preference. Good hotels located within the city are Centerhotel Arnarhvoll or Alda Hotel. Hotels with better rates are generally located away from the city and might require you to walk quite a bit or pay for a cab to reach downtown. Cheaper alternatives are Airbnb, HouseSwap and CouchSurfing.
Note : Iceland has one main road: Route 1, or the Icelandic Ring Road, which circles around the island for 1,332 kilometres.
For visiting Icelandic Highlands a 4WD car needs to be rented. Highlands are only accessible from late June until September.
The best time to see the puffins in Iceland is summer, they arrive in May and leave in late August. Puffins can be found on the uninhabited islands by the names of Akurey and Lundey, both only a half mile away from Reykjavík, a few minutes from the city center by boat. Akurey and Lundey are also called puffin islands.
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